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Analysis: Turkey Coup Attempt Sees Erdogan Tighten Grip on Power

Turkey's strongman appears to have come out even stronger thanks to a failed coup d'etat in the key U.S. ally.
Image: Turkish Supporters are silhouetted against a screan showing President Tayyip Erdogan during a pro-government demonstration in Ankara
Supporters are silhouetted against a screen showing President Tayyip Erdogan.BAZ RATNER / Reuters

Turkey's strongman appears to have come out even stronger thanks to a failed coup d'etat in the key U.S. ally.

President Tayyip Erdogan has tightened his grip on power following the unsuccessful attempt to seize power, raising fears he will take advantage of the situation to further crack down on political opponents.

Supporters are silhouetted against a screen showing President Tayyip Erdogan.BAZ RATNER / Reuters

"The failed coup plot is making president Erdogan more powerful by portraying him as a victim and garnering sympathy,” said Fadi Hakura, an associated fellow at the Chatham House think tank. "He thrives by portraying himself as a victim of powerful elites trying to depose him and destroy the grandeur of Turkey.”

Turkish forces on Friday commandeered tanks, helicopters and military jets. They shelled the Turkish parliament and attempted to seize control of Istanbul — the country's largest city — and capital, Ankara.

Erdogan quickly called on the public to flood the streets and fight the coup plotters. The Turkish public responded overwhelmingly, with thousands taking on soldiers and tanks across the country. Between 200 and 300 people died in the violence.

That public support could encourage Erdogan to go after his critics and foes of his Islamist AK Party, Hakura warned.

“He will use that opportunity to widen the crackdown against opponents, against state institutions and ultimately attempt to railroad Turkey into a more presidential form of government,” Hakura added, referring to constitutional changes Erdogan is pursuing.

On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. stood "squarely on the side of the elected leadership in Turkey" but called on Erdogan's government to respect the rule of law.

"We also urge the government of Turkey to uphold the highest standards of respect for the nation’s democratic institutions," he told a press conference in Brussels. "We will certainly support bringing the perpetrators of the coup to justice, but we also caution against a reach that goes well beyond that and stress the importance of the democratic rule being upheld."

Turkey has seen its economy improve and dramatically expanded its influence during Erdogan's 13 years in power. However, opponents say the president has become increasingly authoritarian — jailing journalists and critics of his regime.

Before the dust from the coup attempt had even settled, Erdogan was pledging to purge the armed forces.

"They will pay a heavy price for this," he said. "This uprising is a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army."

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He also floated the idea of re-instituting the death penalty in the wake of the attempted coup — raising alarm among allies in the European Union, which Turkey is seeking to join.

"There is a clear crime of treason and your request can never be rejected by our government," Erdogan said through a translator in an interview with CNN that aired Monday.

"But of course it will take a parliamentary decision for that to take action in the form of a constitutional measure so leaders will have to get together and discuss it and if they accept to discuss it then I as president will approve any decision that comes out of the parliament,” Erdogan said in the interview.

The scale of the post-coup crackdown was clear in figures confirmed Monday by Turkey's interior ministry.

It said more than 7,500 people had been detained across the country, including about 100 police and 6,030 soldiers. Some 2,745 judges and prosecutors plus 1,500 public workers have been fired, the ministry added.

The make-up of the arrests hints at longstanding tensions between Erdogan’s Islamist AK Party and the armed forces.

The military has typically adhered to the fiercely secular founding principles set out by Turkey's first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Before Erdogan came to power, members of Islamist parties in the Muslim-majority nation had for decades faced discrimination and imprisonment.

Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attend a pro-government rally in Istanbul on Sunday.AMMAR AWAD / Reuters

Despite the longstanding polarization in Turkish politics, the coup attempt was roundly condemned across the political spectrum.

However, the country’s main opposition party warned the government might now be embarking on a "witch-hunt" no more legal than the coup itself.

“Plotters and all their affiliates should give account before the courts within the legal order," the Republican People’s Party said in a document quoted by the Hurriyet Daily. "Investigations should not be seen as an opportunity for revenge and purging.”

"Nobody has a genuine appetite for an authoritarian regime"

The putsch and the AK Party’s reaction to it will also boost Erdogan’s “claim for a presidential system … and now his supporters without thinking will go that way,” said Ziya Meral of the Center for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research, a civilian think-tank affiliated with the British Defense Ministry.

Meral added that Erdogan is shoring up his conservative and nationalist base in order to push major constitutional changes, which would would require a strong majority and motivated support base.

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Still, the fact that thousands of Turks flooded into the streets to thwart the coup attempt in the name of democracy suggests Erdogan might have a hard time finding support for major changes.

"It shows that nobody has a genuine appetite for an authoritarian regime,” Meral explained. “So now even though the AK Party have voters behind them … it might lead the party to realize that it is better not to take things to another crisis.”

A major worry within Turkey and around the world is that the ongoing crisis will dent the NATO member's ability to battle security threats at home and abroad.

The country is grappling with the fight against ISIS, a refugee crisis spurred by the war in Syria just across the border, and a longstanding battle with Kurdish separatist forces in the southeast.

Turkey has suffered numerous attacks this year, including one recently at Ataturk airport that killed more than 40 people.